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Introduction to Small Claims Court

Eric Gehler

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When you need to file a lawsuit against a person, organization, or business entity, you may be able to present your case in small claims court. It's typically faster, more economical and doesn't follow the procedure of a normal jury trial. While a civil procedure can often last for months and cost thousands of dollars, cases heard in small claims court can be filed for a $35 fee and be decided quickly. Small claims court is reserved for cases in which disputes typically involve small amounts of money. Below, we'll help you decide if and how you should pursue your case in small claims court and whether you should hire a lawyer.

Should You Use Small Claims Court?

The first issue in deciding whether to file a small claims lawsuit is to determine the amount of your claim. The maximum allowed is different for each state. For example, California limits the maximum at $7,500 while New York has a $5,000 limit. Also, there are a variety of cases that cannot be filed in small claims court. These include divorces, disputes over guardianship and personal or business bankruptcy cases. However, if you need to file a lawsuit for debts that are owed to you (under the state limit), a breach of contract, or damaged property, small claims court can provide a quick resolution.

Understanding The Process

The biggest difference between small claims court and traditional court proceedings is the absence of lawyers. In most cases, lawyers are not allowed to participate. In the spirit of providing judgment quickly while keeping costs minimal, juries aren't used and objections aren't allowed. To start a small claims lawsuit, you must file a Claim of Plaintiff document with the court and pay the filing fee. Then, you're required to send a copy of the Claim of Plaintiff form to whomever you're suing.

Small claims cases move quickly. Arrive at court with every piece of paperwork you need to prove your claim. These can include canceled checks, invoices, signed contracts and other documents. Make at least 2 copies of each because you may be asked to provide a copy to the defendant and a copy to the court. When presenting your case, be brief, be respectful and state the facts.

Can A Lawyer Help?

Even though lawyers aren't allowed to participate on behalf of the plaintiff or the defendant, you should consult an attorney for advice. Their experience in presenting facts and data to support a case could prove invaluable. Most people lack the skills to present their case in a compelling manner. An attorney can offer valuable insight regarding how the judge will arrive at a decision. Small claims court can be an inexpensive and quick way to seek small judgments. Hiring a lawyer for advice can give you the advantage you need to win your case.

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